Thursday 27 July 2017

How nine Irish peacekeepers died fighting off a Baluba ambush

It was perhaps the biggest outpouring of grief Ireland has ever seen. Half a million people thronged the streets of Dublin for the funerals of eight of the Irish soldiers killed in the Niemba ambush in the Congo in 1960.

In a pre-internet and 24-hour news age, the news from Africa had come slowly and uncertain; names and serial numbers of the dead were mixed up; but it was finally confirmed that an 11-man patrol of Irish UN peacekeepers in the Congo had been ambushed by more than 100 Baluba warriors.

Nine Irish had died; two escaped and two dozen of their attackers were killed.

The news stunned the Irish public and government.

The country had for the first time contributed large Army units on a UN peacekeeping mission abroad – and tens of thousands of people had turned out to bid them farewell.

Ireland had answered the UN's call for a peacekeeping mission to the newly independent Congo.

Soldiers who volunteered en masse were under UN rules that they should not fire until they were fired upon.

So it was that when a horde of drugged and bloodthirsty warriors ran at Lt Kevin Gleeson and his patrol at Niemba he called out "Jambo" – hello in Swahili – before telling his men to return fire under a hail of poisoned arrows. Short of ammunition they made a brave stand on a small hill before being overrun by warriors.

The warriors had been sprinkled with "magic water" by witchdoctors which they were told would protect them from bullets. They had resented efforts by the Irish troops in the area to keep roads open, and they also wanted their weapons.

The soldier's story is impressively told in this updated edition of the classic book by the former RTE security correspondent Tom McCaughren.

His two years of research for the book shows – as well as his access to official records and the families of the fallen.

I recall as a boy in the mid-1960s Tom coming to our home in Blackrock, Co Dublin, to interview my father, Capt Jim Lavery.

My father had been on a secret mission two years after the ambush to recover the body of Trooper Anthony Browne, who had shown extraordinary courage during the ambush.

He had fought his way through his attackers but, wounded and exhausted two miles from the scene, he sought help from two women who brought warriors instead who killed him.

That story is just one of many in the new edition of Tom McCaughren's book.

Don Lavery

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Don Lavery is a former assistant news editor of the Irish Independent.

Irish Independent

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